Georgie pulled into the driveway, swerving to miss a bike.
Neal never made Alice put it away.
Apparently bicycles never got stolen back in Nebraska—and people never tried to break in to your house. Neal didn’t even lock the front door most nights until after Georgie came home, though she’d told him that was like putting a sign in the yard that said PLEASE ROB US AT GUNPOINT. “No,” he’d said. “That would be different, I think.”
She hauled the bike up onto the porch and opened the (unlocked) door.
The lights were off in the living room, but the TV was still on. Alice had fallen asleep on the couch watching Pink Panther cartoons. Georgie went to turn it off and stumbled over a bowl of milk sitting on the floor. There was a stack of laundry folded on the coffee table—she grabbed whatever was on the top to wipe it up.
When Neal stepped into the archway between the living room and the dining room, Georgie was crouched on the floor, sopping up milk with a pair of her own underwear.
“Sorry,” he said. “Alice wanted to put milk out for Noomi.”
“It’s okay, I wasn’t paying attention.” Georgie stood up, wadding the wet underwear in her fist. She nodded at Alice. “Is she feeling okay?”
Neal reached out and took the underwear, then picked up the bowl. “She’s fine. I told her she could wait up for you. It was this whole negotiation over eating her kale and not using the word ‘literally’ anymore because it’s literally driving me crazy.” He looked back at Georgie on his way to the kitchen. “You hungry?”
“Yeah,” she said, following him.
Neal was in a good mood tonight. Usually when Georgie got home this late … Well, usually when Georgie got home this late, he wasn’t.
She sat at the breakfast bar, clearing a space for her elbows among the bills and library books and second-grade worksheets.
Neal walked to the stove and turned on a burner. He was wearing pajama pants and a white T-shirt, and he looked like he’d just gotten a haircut—probably for their trip. If Georgie touched the back of his head now, it’d feel like velvet one way and needles the other.
“I wasn’t sure what you wanted to pack,” he said. “But I washed everything in your hamper. Don’t forget that’s it’s cold there—you always forget that it’s cold.”
She always ended up stealing Neal’s sweaters.
He was in such a good mood tonight.…
He smiled as he made up her plate. Stir-fry. Salmon. Kale. Other green things. He crushed a handful of cashews in his fist and sprinkled them on top, then set the plate in front of her.
When Neal smiled, he had dimples like parentheses—stubbly parentheses. Georgie wanted to pull him over the breakfast bar and nose at his cheeks. (That was her standard response to Neal smiling.) (Though Neal probably wouldn’t know that.)
“I think I washed all your jeans…,” he said, pouring her a glass of wine.
Georgie took a deep breath. She just had to get this over with. “I got good news today.”
He leaned back against the counter and raised an eyebrow. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. So … Maher Jafari wants our show.”
“What’s a Maher Jafari?”
“He’s the network guy we’ve been talking to. The one who green-lit The Lobby and that new reality show about tobacco farmers.”
“Right.” Neal nodded. “The network guy. I thought he was giving you the cold shoulder.”
“We thought he was giving us the cold shoulder,” Georgie said. “Apparently he just has cold shoulders.”
“Huh. Wow. That is good news. So—” He cocked his head to the side. “—why don’t you seem happy?”
“I’m thrilled,” Georgie said. Shrilly. God. She was probably sweating. “He wants a pilot, scripts. We’ve got a big meeting to talk casting.…”
“That’s great,” Neal said, waiting. He knew she was burying the lead.
Georgie closed her eyes. “… on the twenty-seventh.”
The kitchen was quiet. She opened them. Ah, there was the Neal she knew and loved. (Truly. On both counts.) The folded arms, the narrowed eyes, the knots of muscle in both corners of his jaw.
“We’re going to be in Omaha on the twenty-seventh,” he said.
“I know,” she said. “Neal, I know.”
“So? Are you planning to fly back to L.A. early?”
“No, I … we have to get the scripts ready before then. Seth thought—”
“All we’ve got done is the pilot,” Georgie said. “We’ve got nine days to write four episodes and get ready for the meeting—it’s really lucky that we have some time off from Jeff’d Up this week.”
“You have time off because it’s Christmas.”
“I know that it’s Christmas, Neal—I’m not skipping Christmas.”
“No. Just skipping … Omaha. I thought we could all skip Omaha.”
“We already have plane tickets.”
“Neal. It’s a pilot. A deal. With our dream network.”
Georgie felt like she was reading from a script. She’d already had this entire conversation, almost verbatim, this afternoon with Seth.…
“It’s Christmas,” she’d argued. They were in their office, and Seth was sitting on Georgie’s side of the big L-shaped desk they shared. He’d had her cornered.
“Come on, Georgie, we’ll still have Christmas—we’ll have the best Christmas ever after the meeting.”
“Tell that to my kids.”
“I will. Your kids love me.”
“Seth, it’s Christmas. Can’t this meeting wait?”
“We’ve already been waiting our whole career. This is happening, Georgie. Now. It’s finally happening.”
Seth wouldn’t stop saying her name.
Neal’s nostrils were flaring.
“My mom’s expecting us,” he said.
“I know,” Georgie whispered.
“And the kids … Alice sent Santa Claus a change-of-address card, so he’d know she’d be in Omaha.”
Georgie tried to smile. It was a weak effort. “I think he’ll figure it out.”
“That’s not—” Neal shoved the corkscrew in a drawer, then slammed it shut. His voice dropped. “That’s not the point.”
“I know.” She leaned over her plate. “But we can go see your mom next month.”
“And take Alice out of school?”
“If we have to.”
Neal had both hands on the counter, clenching the muscles in his forearms. Like he was retroactively bracing himself for bad news. His head was hanging down, and his hair fell away from his forehead.
“This might be our shot,” Georgie said. “Our own show.”
Neal nodded without lifting his head. “Right,” he said. His voice was soft and flat.
Sometimes she lost her place when she was arguing with Neal. The argument would shift into something else—into somewhere more dangerous—and Georgie wouldn’t even realize it. Sometimes Neal would end the conversation or abandon it while she was still making her point, and she’d just go on arguing long after he’d checked out.
Georgie wasn’t sure whether this even qualified as an argument. Yet.
So she waited.
Neal hung his head.
“What does ‘right’ mean?” she finally asked.
He pushed off the counter, all bare arms and square shoulders. “It means that you’re right. Obviously.” He started clearing the stove. “You have to go to this meeting. It’s important.”
He said it almost lightly. Maybe everything was going to be fine, after all. Maybe he’d even be excited for her. Eventually.
“So,” she said, testing the air between them. “We’ll see about visiting your mom next month?”
Neal opened the dishwasher and started gathering up dishes. “No.”
Georgie pressed her lips together and bit them. “You don’t want to take Alice out of school?”
He shook his head.
She watched him load the dishwasher. “This summer, then?”
His head jerked slightly, like something had brushed his ear. Neal had lovely ears. A little too big, and they poked out at the top like wings. Georgie liked to hold his head by his ears. When he’d let her.
She could imagine his head in her hands now. Could feel her thumbs stroking the tops of his ears, her knuckles brushing against his clippered hair.
“No,” he said again, standing up straight and wiping his palms on his pajama pants. “We’ve already got plane tickets.”
“Neal, I’m serious. I can’t miss this meeting.”
“I know,” he said, turning toward her. His jaw was set. Permanently.
Back in college, Neal had thought about joining the military; he would have been really good at the part where you have to deliver terrible news or execute a heartbreaking order without betraying how much it was costing you. Neal’s face could fly the Enola Gay.
“I don’t understand,” Georgie said.
“You can’t miss this meeting,” he said. “And we already have plane tickets. You’ll be working all week anyway. So you stay here, focus on your show—and we’ll go see my mom.”
“But it’s Christmas. The kids—”
“They can have Christmas again with you when we get back. They’ll love that. Two Christmases.”
Georgie wasn’t sure how to react. Maybe if Neal had been smiling when he said that last thing …
He motioned at her plate. “Do you want me to heat that back up for you?”
“It’s fine,” she said.
He nodded his head, minimally, then brushed past her, leaning over just enough to touch his lips to her cheek. Then he was in the living room, lifting Alice up off the couch. Georgie could hear him shushing her—“It’s okay, sweetie, I’ve got you”—and climbing the stairs.
Copyright © 2014 by Rainbow Rowell
RAINBOW ROWELL lives in Omaha, Nebraska, with her husband and two sons. She's also the author of Fangirl, Eleanor & Park, and Attachments.